Mike Jarvis‘ new job is so close to home, his wife Connie says, “he can ride his bicycle” to work. Mention that to him, mention that he can be “the greenest coach in college basketball,” and he laughs and says, “Maybe I’ll buy a green bicycle.”
When the Jarvises bought a place in Boca Raton, Fla., after Mike was abruptly fired by St. John’s in December 2003, they never imagined Florida Atlantic University might be his next stop. They were just trying to escape from New York, distance themselves from the scandal that eventually landed the program on NCAA probation - and, in the process, heal a little.
Connie thought the West Coast would be a nice spot, but Mike vetoed it as being too far away. “I’d go crazy there,” he told her. “Plus, I have to work [as an analyst for ESPN], and I need to be near airports.” So they settled in Boca, just north of Miami.
And now here he is ending his 4 1/2-year exile by taking over at FAU - a school that’s made just one appearance in the NCAA tournament, a school that’s looking for some stability after seeing two coaches come and go since 2005, a school whose mascot is a burrowing owl.
Jarvis has been a burrowing owl himself lately - a wise old basketball head hiding out in the Sunshine State, waiting for another chance. It doesn’t seem like it should have taken this long. His track record before St. John’s was impeccable. During his time at George Washington, I don’t remember one his players getting so much as a parking ticket. And let’s not forget, he was never blamed for the under-the-table payments a Red Storm staffer slipped backup center Abe Keita, except in a buck-stops-here kind of way.
But when something like that happens in the media capital of the world, it takes a bit longer for the smoke to clear, I guess. Indeed, it was still lingering a couple of months ago, when Jarvis had a shot at the James Madison vacancy but lost out to Matt Brady, whose accomplishments in four years at Marist (one 20-win season, one NIT berth) were modest by any standards. The year before, Mike pursued the Harvard job that went to Tommy Amaker, another coach with a thinner resume.
And truth be known, this isn’t Jarvis’ first pass at the Florida Atlantic post. It’s just that, for athletic director Craig Angelos, the timing is better now. That is, Mike has done his penance for whatever “crimes” he may have committed, and people have begun to remember how good he’s always been for the game.
Besides, how much better can FAU do for a coach?
“It’s like going back to the first season at BU or GW,” Jarvis says. “You’re just trying to build something.”
He certainly knows the drill. Everywhere he has coached, in fact, he has produced immediate results - either a 21-win season (Boston University) or a berth in the conference championship game (George Washington) or one in the Elite Eight (St. John’s). Karl Hobbs has had some nice moments at GW, sure, but it was Jarvis who took the Colonials to the Sweet 16 in his third year (where they were beaten by Michigan’s Fab Five in a very competitive game).
The same potential might exist at Florida Atlantic, which plays in the Sun Belt Conference against the likes of Western Kentucky and South Alabama. Florida, after all, is Florida, fertile recruiting ground in just about any sport. And it has to help that five of the top six scorers will return from last season’s 15-18 team.
“You can at least get [prospects] to take a look at what you have to offer,” Mike says. “There’s no reason you can’t have a good basketball team here. It’s got a lot of the things you need to be successful.”
One of those things is a coach willing to stay put awhile. Jarvis’ predecessor, Rex Walters, bolted for San Francisco after just two seasons. Walters’ predecessor, Matt Doherty - now at SMU - lasted only one. Both bought their way out of their contracts.
It’s different for Mike, though. For starters, he’s 63. He’s not, he claims, looking for a steppingstone job, something to get him back into the big time. “I’m not looking for a stone to step on,” he says, “I’m looking for a rock, something more solid.”
There’s no reason, judging from his past, to doubt him. As he points out, “My original contract at BU was three years, and I stayed five. At GW, it was five years, and I stayed eight.” And after his second season at St. John’s, when the Wizards came calling, he demonstrated his commitment again, saying he didn’t think it would be right to leave so soon.
He looks back on that decision now and cracks, “In hindsight, probably the smartest thing would have been to go to the Wizards, get fired and then go back to college coaching. That’s what other people [John Calipari, Tim Floyd, et al.] did.”
Florida Atlantic no doubt is hoping Jarvis will do for basketball what another knocked-about old coach, Howard Schnellenberger, has done for football. Starting from scratch in 2001, Schnellenberger has built a program that won the conference title last year and whomped Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl.
That’s another benefit of this job for Mike, a hidden one. Schnellenberger, after all, just turned 74. How often does a 63-year-old basketball coach get to work at the same school with a football coach who calls him “sonny”?